Wojciech Jerzy Has took great relish in toying with narrative convention in the nestled labyrinthine pages of The Saragossa Manuscript (1965). He dispenses with it entirely in The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973), an oneiric odyssey through the cob-webbed recesses of memory and into the great beyond. Jan Nowicki plays Josef, who is first introduced on a decrepit old train where his Charon-like conductor encourages him to alight and make his way through a cemetery to the titular institution in which his pa resides. Once he gets there, recollections of his childhood and his father are grotesquely contorted into disconcerting fantasy with surreal majesty.
“It’s the sum of knowledge about human life…in parables and understatements, interspersed with dashes, ellipses and sighs.” This line of dialogue perhaps perfectly encapsulates the illusory nature of Has’ stylistic and thematic preoccupations, but the film is all that and so much more. It’s one-part katabasis, one-part dreamscape; it’s one-part psychoanalysis, one-part poetry; it’s both historical and stridently outside of time. There’s little that makes explicit sense, but it’s The Hourglass Sanatorium’s atmosphere that engulfs you and compels you to drift off with it. Josef travels seamlessly through various grandiose, intricate and stunningly crafted sets, often cast in an unusual green or violet light that accentuates the artifice but does little to offer deeper explanation – not that it need it.
At one point, Josef’s father (Tadeusz Kondrat) intones a warning, “In these matters, beware of petty-mindedness, priggishness and dumb literal meanings. Haven’t you noticed, in between the lines of some books flocks of swallows will fly.” Motifs surrounding birds and literature permeate the milieu, the latter perhaps alluding to the genesis of this cinematic concoction in the amalgamation of various short works by author, Bruno Schulz. Often, one might conclude that the underlying emotional reactions and the playing of tonal games are that with which Has is concerned; that wider meaning is absent. Although the filmmaker generally eschewed the deeply politicised undercurrents of his contemporaries, The Hourglass Sanatorium can’t just throw flocks of swallows at the screen and separate itself from its context entirely. The eponymous building is like some hulking embodiment of Poland, a desiccated shell of its former glory, decaying slowly – like the various patients – in the inescapable purgatory of the Communist regime.
The strong presence of, admittedly somewhat stereotypical, Jewish characters and tradition clearly picks at the itching wound of the regime’s anti-Semitism and hearkens back to a better time before persecution with surreal nostalgia. Nostalgia is something that cinema is perfectly placed to indulge in and sanatorium can be read as the medium itself. This is a haunting and timeless netherworld in which no one sleeps and fantasy and reality elide without comment. Through which the mortal coil can be teasingly suspended or reversed outright, giant birds walk the streets, old friends appear from nowhere and we can approach greater understanding amidst the tumult. Aesthetic, form, symbolism and humanity collide in The Hourglass Sanatorium, and Wojciech has conducts them with orchestral precision into a spellbinding rhapsody.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson